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Three Big-City Housing Ideas That S.F. Has Yet to Try

From containers to virtual residential complexes, these housing solutions are nothing if not creative.

 A residential unit in Austin's Alley Flat Initiative 


Cities like San Francisco must devise clever solutions for affordable housing in large part because the classic approach—getting someone else to pay for it—just isn’t viable anymore. Federal funds have been slashed: “One of the biggest programs we have, the Home Program, is currently proposed to be cut by 93 percent,” says Ed Cabrera, a public affairs officer with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. San Francisco, which normally receives about $4 million for affordable housing from the Home Program, would see its share drop to $280,000—not enough to build an affordable closet. Here are some expert plans and international efforts that could do much, much more.

Approach: Container living
As seen in: Austin, Texas
Carol Galante, a professor of affordable housing and urban policy at UC Berkeley, is enthused about “offsite modular construction for multifamily units”—prefabricated units that can be transported to any available space and stacked to fit. Got a wide alley or a small vacant lot? Now you have a housing complex ready to be installed. Austin’s Alley Flat Initiative was an early leader in this approach, and now, Galante says, small-scale projects are being planned for both the Bayview and student housing in Berkeley.

Approach: Universal rent control
As seen in: Berlin, Germany
In June, the German capital became the first major city to adopt a universal rent control law. Unlike San Francisco, which allows landlords to test the market when a rent-controlled flat turns over, Germany has put a hard cap on what can be charged for a unit. Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, says that “early results suggest that it has been very effective.” 

Approach: Noncontiguous housing projects
As seen in: Academia
Urban Institute researchers Dan Magder and Laurie Goodman proposed in a September 2015 paper that cities should extend subsidies presently reserved for housing complexes to single-family rental homes—essentially treating disparate houses as one virtually connected housing project. “In the past four years, large institutional investors have proven that scattered-site single-family rentals can be operated efficiently,” wrote Magder and Goodman. “While they are still working out kinks, they have dramatically changed the view of multi-site multifamily housing.”


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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